PITTSBURGH — There is no mistaking that the Pittsburgh Pirates, as they currently are constructed, are legitimate contenders to win the division series in which they are involved with the Cardinals and thus reach the National League championship series for the first time since 1992.
But what’s taken so long?
The Pirates, when former Cardinals star Ted Simmons was general manager, had to be broken up for financial reasons after their consecutive division titles from 1990-92. Simmons, who was GM for the final year of that run, had to leave for heart-related health reasons in 1993. And then it gradually fell apart for the Pirates, who didn’t have a winning season from 1992 until this year despite picking in the upper half of the draft every year from 1994 until the present.
Manager Clint Hurdle admitted he wondered why, given all those high draft picks, the Pirates hadn’t advanced to their present station a little faster but he said, “Most of those questions were for people that weren’t here.”
Later, he said, “I was a No. 1 pick (by the Kansas City Royals). It is very difficult. (When) you go out and try to draft 17- and 18-year-old people, you draft them on what you project them to be. Obviously when it doesn’t work out, it’s not the way you planned.
“I followed the (Detroit) Lions, being a Michigan kid. And we had some No. 1 picks for a while that didn’t quite work out the way we want them. But nobody goes in and picks a guy No. 1 and you’re counting on him to fail. Sometimes things just don’t work.”
The Pirates’ No. 1s after they took catcher Jason Kendall in 1992 mostly were famine for the next 10 years. Other than Kris Benson, who had a decent major-league career before being terrorized by his wife, the Pirates took a shortstop who hit .195 in the majors in Chad Hermansen. Outfielder J.J. Davis batted .179.
Pitcher John Van Benschotren was 2-13 in the majors and Bryan Bullington, a No. 1 pick overall, finished his career at 1-9.
Outfielder Charles Peterson, shortstop Mark Farris, pitcher/outfielder Clint Johnston and pitcher Bobby Bradley never made the majors at all.
The succeeding 10 drafts have been more profitable for the Pirates although there been misfires with pitchers Brad Lincoln and Daniel Moskos.
But, now the Pirates finally are starting to reap the benefits of No. 1 picks who made sense at the time and who have confirmed those expectations.
Second baseman Neil Walker was taken first in 2004 and premier center fielder Andrew McCutchen was chosen first the next year. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez, who tied for the league home run lead this year and would break all records if he played his whole career against the Cardinals, was the second overall pick in 2008.
Gerrit Cole, a pitcher from UCLA, was the first player taken in 2011 and has blossomed so fast that he will be on the mound tonight in at least the Pirates’ second most important game since 1992, if last week’s wild-card win over Cincinnati is accorded the first spot.
Cole already has displayed his mettle to St. Louis fans, beating the Cardinals, 7-1, on Friday here in Game 2 of the series, finishing his six-inning stint with a 100 mile an hour fastball.
And he has poise, too.
“Gerrit Cole has done nothing but get better throughout the season,” Hurdle said of the rookie who won 10 games after being called up in June. “He’s been as good as anybody we’ve been able to run out there the last six weeks.”
There was some internal discussion as to whether Cole was being rushed to the majors, as probably was debated by the Cardinals with fellow wunderkind Michael Wacha.
But Hurdle said, “We’ve always, since I’ve been here, wanted to make sure that we are taking care of our players, getting them doing everything we can to put them in the best place to have success when they get here. We are not going to hit a thousand on everybody as far as the due date. We don’t hit a thousand on everybody on the expiration date.
“What we have seen since Gerrit has been here has been a young man that continues to improve. He uses his eyes very well and he uses his ears very well. The competitive edge that he takes on the mound is visible. The emotion that he pitches with, I think you’ve been able to see over the course of time, (is) special and that can be significant.
“He respects everything; he fears nothing. The volume of work has put him into place to have success (tonight).”
Like Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, Hurdle will have a mostly full bullpen, with an exception or two.
“(Francisco) Liriano pretty much poured his whole tank out the other day,” said Hurdle of his Game 3 starter, who has had the flu.
Hurdle said he also was unsure if he would have longtime starter A.J. Burnett, who was roughed up in Game 1 here, in the bullpen because of the alteration it might cause in his routine. Burnett has relieved only five times in 383 big-league games.
“I do feel confident,” Hurdle said, “that we’ve got the pitching we are going to need to play.”
There will be no changes at the top of the lineup where Starling Marte and Walker are one for 31, a homer by Marte.
“It’s Game 168,” Hurdle said. “These men are both capable and they have done it in the past. We have been pitched effectively in a couple different spots. I have every confidence that (tonight) will be the night that they get going.”
But Hurdle knows as well as anyone else that the Pirates’ best chance starts with the 23-year-old Cole.
“This is obviously an exciting time, a high-pressure situation,” Cole said. “This is what you prepare for all year. This is why you work out in the offseason, for moments like this, to be mentally and physically ready to go.”
It will be Game 24 between the Cardinals and Pirates, which is the most times the two clubs ever have played each other in their long histories. The Pirates have won 11 of the first 23.
“We’ve played them close,” Hurdle said. “It has been a very respectful challenge series.”
There has been no bad blood exhibited and, although Matheny said he wouldn’t go so far as to state it was a “friendly” rivalry, he said there certainly was mutual respect.
“We respect the talent that they have, the way they go about the game, how they fight till the end, which is the kind of baseball we like to play,” Matheny said.
Wednesday night, after the 24th game, somebody will have fought to their end. And somebody will be playing the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday.